In Pakistan, straw men have foreign hands

September 4, 2012

Let’s say you want to get an article published in Pakistan and have your audience nod sympathetically as they read through your argument. What do you do?

One option is to start by expressing outrage over drones, regardless of what your piece is about. You can strengthen your case by wrapping drone attacks on Pakistan’s tribal areas (FATA) into a coherent narrative of U.S. militarism, seen at its worst in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, because as we know, it is impossible to have opposed the Iraq war and support drones – U.S. President Barack Obama being the most notable among the inconvenient exceptions.

Perhaps better to avoid such sweeping assertions,in case inconvenient details get in the way,and simply allude to hot button issues. Describing someone as western-influenced is guaranteed to get your audience’s collective heads nodding. But don’t confuse them too much by using words like “westoxification”(the result of imbibing too much western influence) – it is far more effective to make a disapproving reference to drinking alcohol.

Then of course there are the traditional staples – words like “feudal”, “elite” and “liberal”. Try to avoid the terms “fake liberal” or “liberal fascist” because nobody knows what they mean and when you do use them, it gives away your agenda at the start. Better to stick with simple words – although if you can get drones and corruption into your opening paragraph you are onto a winner.

It would be amusing were it not so serious. In a country which is engaged in a deadly struggle with sectarianism, extremism and militancy, Pakistan has never had more need for reasoned debate. Yet the frequent use of the “straw man” – based on a misrepresentation of an opponent’s position – usually equipped with a “foreign hand” – undercuts that, playing to the gallery and appealing to emotion rather than reason.

Take for example a recent piece by UK-based academic Humeira Iqtidar, arguing that Islamist groups in Pakistan will eventually contribute to a process of secularisation of society by challenging religious traditions based on superstition (a very rough, but inadequate, analogy would be with the Reformation in Europe).

Her research was carried out in Punjab and focuses on two Punjab-based Islamist groups – the Jamaat-e-Islami political organisation and the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, widely seen as the humanitarian wing of the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group.

Yet she opens her article with a reference to FATA – a subject she does not appear to have researched; and implies that Pakistan’s pro-democracy “liberals” supported military rule and continue to back U.S. drone bombings in the tribal areas of Pakistan (an argument rejected by at least one of the so-called “liberals” cited in her piece).

“These liberal activists have supported a military dictatorship that proclaimed ‘Enlightened Moderation’ as its raison d’etre, just as an earlier one claimed Islamisation as its own, and they have championed sustained bombing and drone attacks in one of the poorest regions of Pakistan purportedly to save democracy and secularism from the generic genie of Islamism.”

That is not to say the argument in itself should be discounted. But hers is a rhetorical device that confuses rather than illuminates – many would argue that the roots of extremism in Pakistan lie in Punjab (its erstwhile military-dominated heartland) rather than in FATA. And it appeals to emotion rather than reason: “sustained bombings”; “one of the poorest regions of Pakistan”. If there is a reasoned argument to make about Islamism in Punjab; it does not begin in FATA.

We will return to the subject of drone attacks, but here’s another example of the straw man with a foreign hand. And while it would be unfair to equate the two writers, it is worth quoting to show how easily the same mindset insinuates itself.

An op-ed published by Dawn newspaper headlined “Economic myths & our elite” by S. Akbar Zaidi makes some valid points about the nature of Pakistan’s economy and society. Again, it is particularly relevant to Punjab, Pakistan’s biggest and politically dominant province. With Pakistan/Punjab urbanising, it no longer makes sense to view it as a predominantly rural society; and foreign aid, he argues, has little impact in a region where the black economy is thriving.

But here is how it is packaged (score 10 points for every reference that gets heads nodding in agreement; 100 points for the “foreign hand”, helped by the “liberal” enemy within):

“With Western journalists quoting Pakistani Op-Ed contributors whenever convenient” … “perhaps a more substantive analysis in the first place, would help them understand far better than the conversations they reproduce from the drawing rooms and the watering holes of the elite on which they thrive.” (Western, check. Watering holes/alcohol, check. Elite, check.)

“It is not the fast-moving consumer goods, the Engros and the Habib Banks, or Pepsi or Unilever or ICI, which drive Pakistan’s industry, as so many of the elite who work for them falsely believe.” (identify “liberals” with western capitalism, check)

“A second myth repeated ad nauseam is that Pakistan is predominantly rural and is an ‘agricultural country’.” … “…since many Western journalists only meet such ‘feudals’, they still write mainly about ‘feudal’ Pakistan. (westerners = feudals, check).

What we have in Zaidi’s piece is an important argument – the shift towards urbanisation and the strength of the black economy – dressed up in the populist language of rejecting the west.

As a result, it has no compulsion to make its case according to reason (he accuses liberals of wanting to reduce military expenditure to raise social spending, without acknowledging that the non-liberal Tehrik-e-Insaaf party of cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan – himself a product of the elite – also wants to do the same thing.)

It does not need to grapple with the real issue of how Pakistan should deal with age-old problems of competition for political power between urban and rural populations; nor is it required to examine how trends are different in different parts of Pakistan (try to apply theories of urbanisation to FATA).

I could find other examples – these two just happened to be published recently – but the broader point is that unwittingly or not, they fell into a category of writing that seems, at least to me, to be increasingly prevalent.

All they need to do is hit the hot button issues to be right; they have no requirement to engage in diversity or complexity.  Rather as European fascists did, they create both an external enemy and internal enemy to blame for Pakistan’s problems. While the authors may have intended a reasonable argument, they use rhetorical techniques that undermine reason.

You might tell me that I am being finicky. That poring over questions of narrative is irrelevant to those who are being killed. That I shouldn’t reduce the state of Pakistan to eurocentric definitions of fascism.

When I next hang out in the “watering holes” of the feudals, I will be sure to raise it. We will do a little drone dance to the tune of the Hokey Cokey and all agree that one of the poorest regions of Pakistan should be subjected to American bombing.

But wait. I don’t think that.

Let’s return to U.S. drone attacks in FATA. As far as I can make out, there are two main arguments against them. One is pragmatic – that as long as Americans are bombing part of Pakistan (albeit outside of government control), it is hard, if not impossible, for those who want to do so, to win their argument against extremism. I have been told that so often that it would be absurd of me to ignore it.

The other is emotional, driven by reports of civilian casualties from drone attacks.

My problem with the emotional argument has always been its selective outrage – civilians die from drones, from Pakistani military operations and at the hand of Taliban militants. Reasonably, the best I can say is that drones have the technical capacity to cause fewer civilian casualties than the other options.

Reasonably, those who oppose drone attacks must also oppose any other use of military force and explain how they intend to make peace with those who appear to have no interest in peace.

It is not an easy argument.  And none of this is easy. Emotionally, I wonder how I would feel if my own village in Scotland were overrun by the Taliban – would I want rulers in London to “give peace a chance”, for the British Army to shell us with artillery, or American drones to kill the Taliban leadership?

I don’t know. I don’t live in FATA. Ask people who live there. Give them a free press and the political reforms needed to bring them into the Pakistani mainstream and let them make their own arguments.

I am, however, sure that arguments that depend on “the foreign hand of the straw man” are damaging.

Let me quote the lawyer who was pushing for a conviction of Rimsha Masih, the young girl who media reports say has Down’s Syndrome, in jail for allegedly desecrating the Koran. Here is what the lawyer said, according to The Guardian:

“On Saturday he blamed foreign powers for whipping up support. “I don’t understand the interest of the international community because there are so many innocent people in Pakistan being murdered,” he said. “A single drone attack and hundreds of people die. What is the difference between Rimsha and these innocent people?”

Narrative matters.

Yet here is how Iqtidar ends her piece:

“Pakistanis do not have to fall into the trap of choosing between the individualised terrorism of the suicide bomber and the state terrorism of drone attacks, between denouncing the religiously political as unmitigated evil and the secular as always imperial. We can reject both.”

I disagree. Choose reason.

One comment

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Great article.

Thanks for calling out the hypocrisy among certain elements of the Pakistani public.

Personally, I support drone attacks. Not because I don’t hate Pakistanis or want to see innocents killed. It’s because the threat is there, drones are the only way to counter them without full-scale operations which the Pakistanis have neither the resources, nor the testicular fortitude to undertake in their own backyard. When they are not willing to address the problem, why should the rest of the world suffer for it?

Beyond that, as you right point out, there is the hypocrisy of wailing loudly over the killing of innoncents by drones but silence or difference when the Taliban kill civilians or when the PA does it or when minorities are killed.

It’s incredulous that a plaintiff would even feign offence that the rest of the world is deeply troubled over the prosecution of a mentally challenged young girl. Should Pakistanis be described as anything other than barbaric when they put young, mentally-challenged girls on trial for desecrating a book?

Religion of Mercy? Ask Rimsha Masih how merciful the Muslims around her are. I doubt the Prophet himself would condone such lunacy. The things done in Allah’s name…..

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